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Summary Article: Charles II from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

called

the Merry Monarch

1630-85

King of Great Britain and Ireland

Charles was the son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria and the years of his reign are known in English history as the Restoration Period. As Prince of Wales during the 1642-46 Civil War, he was sent to govern the west of England and saw action at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, but when the Royalist forces continued to suffer heavy defeats, he went into exile to Sicily, Jersey (where his mistress, Lucy Walter, bore him a son, James, Duke of Monmouth) and France. When his father was executed in 1649, Charles was proclaimed monarch by Scotland; on arriving in Edinburgh he agreed to the Presbyterian Covenant and, despite the failure of his forces to defeat Oliver Cromwell at Dunbar, he was crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651. At the Battle of Worcester the following September, Cromwell's forces again triumphed and Charles fled to France and the Netherlands.

As a result of successful negotiations in 1659 to restore the monarchy, Charles returned to England. Promising a general amnesty and liberty of conscience in his Declaration of Breda, he entered London in triumph on 29 May 1660 - his 30th birthday. Personally, Charles was inclined to favour Roman Catholicism, marrying the Catholic Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and in 1663 he attempted to issue a Declaration of Indulgence (allowing religious toleration of the Roman Catholics and Nonconformists), but it was bitterly resented. Under the chancellorship of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, the country enjoyed peace and sound government, until his promotion of an unsuccessful war with Holland (1665-67) brought Hyde's downfall, and the office of Lord Chancellor was replaced by a group of ministers acting in concert, who effectively formed the country's first cabinet.

By the late 1660s, anti-Catholic feeling was again growing in strength, partly because of the growing power of Louis XIV of France, and also because the Great Fire of London in 1666 was blamed by some on a Catholic conspiracy. Charles had already sold Dunkirk to France in 1662 and, having little wish to see a revival of the old enmity, or to jeopardize an important potential source of personal income, he concluded a secret treaty whereby he undertook to become a Catholic, together with his brother (the future James VII and II), and to enter into an alliance against Holland in return for an annual payment from Louis of £200,000. Charles's second attempt to subdue the Dutch between 1672 and 1674 was barely more successful than the first. James openly professed his allegiance to Catholicism, and in 1673 married a Catholic, Mary of Modena. Meanwhile, Charles's attempt to issue a second Declaration of Indulgence to annul the penal laws against the Catholics and dissenters was rejected by parliament, which instead passed the 1673 Test Act, which excluded Roman Catholics from sitting in parliament or holding government office. It was followed by repeated attempts to legislate against James's succession to the throne, or to drastically limit his powers if he did so.

Catherine's failure to produce an heir compelled Charles to consent to the marriage in 1677 of his Protestant niece Mary (the future Mary II) to William of Orange (the future William III), and anti-Catholicism returned in the light of the fabricated account by Titus Oates of a Popish plot to murder the king. The next three years saw the future of the Stuart dynasty hanging in the balance, and the emergence for the first time of party distinctions, with the Whigs favouring James's exclusion and the Tories opposed to any tampering with the succession. The Tories and Charles won the day, and the king immediately legislated for changes to borough government that effectively excluded the Whigs from power. Despite the absence of parliamentary opposition after Charles seized total power in 1681, anti-Catholic sentiment grew, and reached a peak after the 1683 Rye House plot to murder Charles and James came to light. However, James's succession was now safe. Charles died without producing an heir, but through his affairs with Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn, Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth and many others, he fathered several children, most of whom were later ennobled.

  • Jones, J R, CharlesII (1987); Ollard, Richard, The Image of the King: Charles I and Charles II (1979); Fraser, Antonia, Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration (1979).

"Whereas, women's parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men in the habits of women … we do permit and give leave for the time to come that all women's parts be acted by women."

- Royal licence, sanctioning the appearance of actresses on the English stage (1662).

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

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